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THE ENVELOPE | TWO HEADS UP

A night up for grabs

With films focusing on homosexuality, racism and terrorism, there's no shortage of hot-button topics at the 78th Annual Academy Awards. Which is where Times film industry writer John Horn and movie columnist Patrick Goldstein come in. Taking a break from their weekly Envelope podcast, The Oscar Call, they go head to head to debate one of the most politically minded shows ever.

February 23, 2006|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN AND JOHN HORN

Q: Combined box office for this year's best picture candidates is downright anemic. Why should the public care about this year's Oscars?

John: First, it's three full hours of Jon Stewart, which is 2 1/2 hours more than you get on "Comedy Central." Second, the suspense is killer -- not over who will win best picture but how the show's producers are going to present the nominated "Hustle & Flow" song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." Finally, who doesn't want to know what will win for live-action short film?

Patrick: I agree with John about Jon -- surely he's saving some good Dick Cheney material. But personally, I'll be watching to see if there's one winning actor or actress who's brave enough to take the stage, stand up for what he or she believes in ... and not thank every agent, manager and publicist on the payroll.

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Q: Can anyone beat "Brokeback" for best picture?

John: If Marisa Tomei can win an Oscar for "My Cousin Vinny," anything is possible. I actually believe "Crash" can beat "Brokeback Mountain." "Crash" has shown unbelievable resilience. Remember, the L.A. Times review was a slam, as was the New York Times' -- and the film still turned into an art-house hit. Lionsgate, the film's distributor, has done a great job of keeping the film front and center.

Patrick: I think that's a wonderful, stirring prediction, especially coming from the guy who had the Seahawks upsetting the Steelers. If "Midnight Cowboy" could win best picture more than 35 years ago, I don't think a tiny whiff of academy homophobia is going to stop "Brokeback Mountain."

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Q: What's the one red carpet interview you're really hoping to see this year?

John: When the country was on the verge of invading Iraq three years ago, Oscar organizers canceled the red carpet because it was considered unseemly at a time of war. Well, we're still at war, and the red carpet is still unseemly. So let's just do away with it.

Patrick: For me, Access Hollywood's Billy Bush interviewing anybody is a riveting TV viewing experience.

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Q: Could this be the lowest-rated Oscars in a decade?

John: It certainly looks possible. At the Oscar nominees' lunch, show producer Gil Cates implored the nominees to come up with great acceptance speeches, saying, "With this year's crop of grown-up movies, finding and keeping a large audience isn't going to be easy."

Patrick: When ABC is taking out ads for the Oscars on the side of every bus in town, you know they're worried, big-time. This could be the worst-rated TV show since "Emily's Reasons Why Not."

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Q: What's the best Oscar race that nobody's talking about?

John: I would say foreign language feature, and that's not just over the films that were nominated. The academy continues to exclude some of the best films from consideration. One of the biggest possible surprises this year might be a win for "Paradise Now," the Palestinian film about two suicide bombers. It's a provocative political counterpoint to Steven Spielberg's "Munich."

Patrick: I'll go with best original screenplay. It offers a fascinating commentary on what it takes to get an ambitious original script made in Hollywood. Surely it's not a coincidence that each of the five nominated films was directed by the same person who wrote them. It shows how difficult it is to get an original script through the system unless it has the clout of a writer-director behind it.

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Q: On the surface, this year's Oscar campaigns have seemed fairly genteel. Is that just another Hollywood illusion? Or is everybody actually playing nice?

John: They are playing nice when it suits them. The Oscar consultants aren't bad-mouthing the competition as frequently as they used to, which is a relief. And it's debatable whether a studio's spending countless millions on a campaign -- Universal's effort for "Cinderella Man" tops the list -- is, in fact, nice or genteel. Some people, especially rival nominees, see an effort like Universal's as unfair and overkill. And there has been a particularly nasty and personal fight among the producers of "Crash" over who actually produced the movie, and thus who is eligible for the best picture Oscar.

Patrick: If I were making an Oscar movie, I'd sure want Universal distributing it. It spent millions on "Cinderella Man," which never had a chance, and now it's spent millions more on "Munich," which has, at best, half a chance. I'm still trying to figure out that "Munich" advertisement that ran for weeks that showed the hero of the movie, with his wife, watching the coverage of the Munich hostage crisis on TV. Surely it must be the first newspaper advertisement for a movie that showed its characters engrossed in a television program.

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Q: Is the show all about backslapping, or do the Oscars ultimately play a role in Hollywood's business decisions?

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